Israeli makes a difference in South African township

Galit Cohen in Orange Farm: To leave now would be like not doing anything at all.Imagine a 9-year-old who has watched his parents die, and is now responsible for raising his younger brothers and sisters. Now imagine some 200 households …

Galit Cohen in Orange Farm: To leave now would be like not doing anything at all.Imagine a 9-year-old who has watched his parents die, and is now responsible for raising his younger brothers and sisters. Now imagine some 200 households like that – all headed by young, traumatized orphans.

That is the situation Galit Cohen discovered in Orange Farm, a teeming township in South Africa, where she began working as a volunteer three years ago.

The 34-year-old Israeli left her job at a travel agency in Tel Aviv in order to make a difference in the world. By all accounts, she has.

In Orange Farm, home to 1.5 million South Africans, Cohen is known as ‘Tandeka’ – or ‘most loved one’ in Zulu.

For the last year she has been in charge of community programs in Orange Farm – on behalf of MaAfrica Tikkun, a humanitarian Jewish organization of South Africa and member of IsraAID, an umbrella group of Israeli and Jewish international aid organizations. In July, she was promoted to run all the organization’s projects in the province of Gauteng.

Probably Cohen’s most significant contribution to the community has been identifying the needs of households headed by children whose parents have died of AIDS – and setting up unique programs to help them.

“You’ll have a girl of 14, who is pregnant, and supports her six siblings by working in prostitution. You’ll have children as young as 9 in charge of households. On top of this, many of these children are traumatized because they watched their parents die,” Cohen told ISRAEL21c.

“We don’t want to put these children in orphanages. The only thing they have left is the home and community that they know so we try to help them stay together in their home – if that’s what they want.”

The children are saddled with enormous responsibility, but often feel vulnerable and powerless.

“Some of them,” explains Cohen, “are petrified to even leave the house to go to school because they fear that adults will take over their house.”

Cohen organizes camps, self-esteem and leadership workshops for them – as well as catering to practical needs like buying school uniforms and bringing them food parcels.

Many of the children have never had a chance to experience childhood. In January, Cohen gave them a taste of that missed chapter in life, when she brought some 200 orphans for a ‘fun day’ at an amusement park. For most of the children, it was their first time at a park like that. The project was financed by an Israeli donor.

Next month Cohen will launch a life skills and parenting skills program for the children. It will be given in a soon-to-be completed building – the Children Headed Household Center – donated by an American company.

That program is just one part of the work Cohen does in Orange Town, a crime-ridden township with no running water or electricity – located some 25 miles from Johannesburg.

Teaming up with other community-based organizations, Cohen has trained 120 community volunteers in first aid, nursing, problem-solving, family counseling and communication skills. But it’s an uphill battle.

“Often the volunteers themselves die of AIDS, and we have to train new ones all over again,” she notes.

And in South Africa, the stigma of AIDS is often as devastating as the disease itself.

“With some 30 to 40% of the population in South Africa HIV positive, virtually every family is affected,” notes Cohen. “Yet you will still have a case in which a mother locks her 30-year-old son in an iron shack without water because she doesn’t want the neighbors to know he is HIV positive.

“One of our major activities is aimed at breaking down this stigma.”

How did the former travel agent, who grew up in Haifa, end up working in a township in South Africa?

“I just felt there must be more to life than what I was doing – there must be some way to make a difference,” says Cohen, who began her volunteer work with a Mother Theresa mission in Ethiopia in 2001 where she took care of people dying of AIDS. She completed a training program in HIV-related issues in Norway, and it was her experience in that field that led to the position in South Africa.

She joined Ma’Africa Tikkun as a volunteer, but was eventually asked to assume a paid position as coordinator of HIV programs first, in Orange Farm and then, in the entire province. She works in close coordination with other NGOs, including interfaith organizations and church groups, and receives support and funding from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

Life in Orange Farm can be grim. There are children starving to death.

“They refuse to go to a feeding center because,” notes Cohen, “they don’t want to be seen as needy orphans.”

How does she find the strength to keep on working in this often bleak reality?

“I learned many lessons from my experience in Ethiopia where, after three months, I was burned out. I won’t let that happen again.”

While in Addis Ababa, Cohen lived in the mission among the people she helped. Today she has learned to keep a strict division between her personal life and her work. She lives in what she calls a good neighborhood in Johannesburg, goes out, and tries to live a normal life after-hours.

“I have to do this because I cannot allow myself to burn out. Otherwise I couldn’t help anyone, and I’m not willing to do that to the South Africans.”

How have people responded to her as an Israeli?

“It has never been an issue,” says Cohen. “I think the fact that I am not South African has made it easier to win acceptance because I wasn’t judged by what I did during the apartheid era.

“Some of my South African colleagues even say ‘Shalom.’”

Cohen hopes to bring more Israeli volunteers to work in the program. But she is in no rush to return to her homeland.

“When there’s peace, I will return to Israel and work on programs with Israelis and Palestinians. But for now, I feel the need in South Africa is much greater.

“To leave now would be like not doing anything at all. My goal is to empower people here to do all the work on their own, to sustain it themselves. When they can do that, I’ll know I can leave, and move on to another country.”

In the meantime, Cohen admits that watching orphans raise their brothers and sisters, encountering young girls selling their bodies, and seeing volunteers die – is painful.

“But if I saw all this,” says Cohen, “and knew I couldn’t do anything to help, that would be much more painful. I have solutions for these people. I have the power to help them. So it’s not just pain I feel, but also power.”

Sometimes, she says, a child will approach her and say ‘you saved my life.’

“And that,” says the Israeli known as Tandeka, “makes it all worthwhile.”